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Australian beef production

Why the PNAS environmental costs of beef report does not relate to Australian beef production

The study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 was exclusively undertaken on United States beef, dairy, pork and chicken production. It does not relate to Australian production

The Australian beef industry notes that:

  • The study exclusively deals with animal protein production in the United States. The grain-fed system in the US is quite different to the grain-fed industry here, where cattle spend only 10-15% of their lives in feedlots. 
  • It is incorrect to draw conclusions about Australian animal production systems based on this one US study. Life cycle assessment of carbon footprints are specific, local and variable.
  • In Australia, even "grain fed" cattle spend most of their lives grazing grass.  At any one time, only around 2% of Australia’s cattle population is in feedlots. This is very different to the US. 
  • In Australia grain fed to livestock is either ‘feed grain’ quality, or grown solely for livestock consumption. Cattle are not consuming grains that humans can eat.
  • In Australia very little water is used for irrigation in beef production. This is different to the US system studied in the PNAS paper.
  • Using arid land for grazing cattle may actually be positive in Australia. See conservationist Dr Barry Trail talk about this at TEDx. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JW7tZ4JPqEI
  • In Australia the livestock industry produces approximately 10 per cent of Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions. US estimates are closer to 20%. Find out what the Australian industry is doing to research emissions reduction.
  • The Australian cattle and sheep industry invests around $13 million annually in research, development and extension programs to improve environmental performance. Find out more at  www.Target100.com.au
  • Australian production efficiencies have delivered a 5.3% reduction in emissions per tonne of beef produced since 1990 (Calculated using 2010 beef production data from MLA and from the 2009 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory).
  • Life Cycle Assessment on Australian beef and lamb production systems showed that Australia has one of the lowest carbon emission profiles of any major meat producing country.  The research was undertaken by the University of New South Wales in 2009.

Some key facts about Australian beef production systems:

Emissions

  • Australia's livestock industry produces approximately 10 per cent of Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these emissions come from methane which is produced by the natural digestion process of cattle and sheep.
  • The impact of improving production efficiencies for climate mitigation, without reducing total production, is evident in Australia where production efficiencies have delivered a 5.3% reduction in emissions per tonne of beef produced since 1990 (Calculated using 2010 beef production data from MLA and from the 2009 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory).
  • The first Life Cycle Assessment undertaken on Australian beef and lamb production systems showed that Australia has one of the lowest carbon emission profiles of any major meat producing country.  The research was undertaken by the University of New South Wales in 2009.
  • A recent paper by Hendrie et al found that if Australians followed the recommended dietary guidelines, they could reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and meet their nutrient requirements (Hendrie GA et al. Nutrients 2014).Importantly, the main dietary change would involve reducing intake of ‘non-core’ foods, which account for 27% of diet-related GHG emissions.

Water

  • The environmental impact of water use depends on the source of the water and the limitations of supply.  A meaningful measure is the volume of water used from dams, rivers, bores and town water supplies (‘blue water’) that would otherwise have been available for human purposes; rather than the ‘use’ of soil stored moisture from rainfall (‘green water’) for pasture production, where there is not a competitive use.
  • A series of independent LCA studies have found that it takes between 103 and 540 litres of water to produce a kilogram of beef in Australia. These studies have measured the amount of ‘blue water’ it takes to produce beef taking into account that cattle’s drinking water primarily comes  from sources such as small farm dams and localised creeks that could not be used for human purposes.

Land

  • Australian cattle and sheep are mainly reared on extensive rangelands and semi-arid areas. Because of geological, topographic and climatic factors, less than 8 per cent of Australia’s land is suitable for crop production. Cattle and sheep farming is the most efficient use of non-arable land, enabling this land, which could not be used for any other food production, to be used to produce highly nutritious protein.
  • As caretakers of nearly half (47 per cent) of Australia’s landmass, cattle and sheep farmers aim to continually improve their land management practices to ensure they can continue to produce food sustainably in a changing environment for the world’s growing population.

Study details this page is in response to:

 “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States,” by Gidon Eshel, Alon Shepon, Tamar Makov, and Ron Milo.